Gregory III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, has joked that if the Apostle Peter had just stayed put, he himself would be the earthly head of the Catholic Church today. For tradition has it that St. Peter headed the Church of Antioch, where “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), for seven years before sojourning on to Rome. The Patriarchs of Antioch, therefore, have from the beginning considered themselves to be successors of Peter, albeit without the universal prerogatives of the apostle’s ultimate successor in Rome.
Ironically, the See of Peter at Antioch is more hotly contested than the See of Peter in Rome: there are today no fewer than five Patriarchs of Antioch, including a hat-trick of three Catholic Patriarchs. This proliferation is a consequence of the wild and wonderful days of the Christological controversies of the First Millennium.
In the early centuries of the Church, the See of Antioch was one of the most prominent and important centers of Christianity. It was initially the third See in Christendom, after Rome and Alexandria, and then the fourth, after the Roman Emperor transferred his capital to Constantinople and established it as the New Rome. After this, the See of Antioch strongly influenced Constantinople’s theological and liturgical development, as many of the most important figures of the Church of the imperial city came from Antioch, including St. John Chrysostom, who is named as author of the foremost Byzantine liturgy.
The See of Antioch had been the center of a theological school that originated the principal opposition to the Alexandrine point of view on Christology and other matters. While the Alexandrians (including such notables as Clement of Alexandria and Origen) explored an allegorical interpretation of Scripture and directed considerable energy to safeguarding and explicating the Church’s doctrine of Christ’s divinity, the Antiochenes (St. John Chrysostom and others) favored a more literal understanding and focused on His humanity.
It is no surprise, then, that Nestorianism, a heresy that grew out of a concern to emphasize the fullness of Christ’s humanity, was elaborated from the writings of such Antiochenes as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, while Monophysitism, which in its extreme forms denied or deemphasized to the point of nonexistence Christ’s humanity, was a product of Alexandria.
In light of this, it is ironic that the first lasting schism in the Church of Antioch came when a sizable party in Antioch sided with the Alexandrians. This came about during the endless wrangling following the fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon (451), which defined Christ as one Divine Person with two natures, divine and human. As all too often happens, that Council didn’t so much settle controversies as create new ones and exacerbate old ones – at least in its immediate aftermath. The followers of the Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria and others who were anathematized at the Council did not recant their views, but dug in and vied with the orthodox for control of the three principal Eastern Apostolic Sees, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch.
The non-Chalcedonians were called Monophysites by their enemies, but called themselves Miaphysites. The difference is that Monophysites believed that Christ had no human nature at all, but only a divine nature, while Miaphysites acknowledged his human nature but emphasized his unity as a single Divine Person – a view separated from the orthodox one defined at Chalcedon only by semantics. Yet ultimately, in the aftermath of Chalcedon, the Church of Alexandria went into schism, and took with it a significant portion of the Church of Antioch.
The See of Antioch itself ultimately came under the sway of the Alexandrians, particularly during the reign of the Patriarch Severus (512-518), a Miaphysite whom the non-Chalcedonian Byzantine Emperor Anastasius had sent to take up the See of Antioch. Severus deposed and replaced the Patriarch Flavian II, who accepted Chalcedon. The orthodox refused to accept Flavian’s deposition, and so from then on there were two Patriarchs of Antioch: one that accepted Chalcedon and one that didn’t.
It is hard to tell the players without a scorecard, as both the Chalcedonians and the non-Chalcedonians today call themselves “Orthodox,” although they are not in communion with one another (or with Rome). The Antiochian Orthodox Church is in communion with the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, and accepts Chalcedon as a valid ecumenical council; the Syriac Orthodox Church is not in communion with Constantinople (or Rome) and rejects Chalcedon.
As if these schisms weren’t unfortunate enough, in the next century the warriors of jihad entered Antioch, in 637. The city was for centuries near the fault line dividing Christendom from the House of Islam; as fighting raged sporadically, the Byzantines recaptured Antioch in 969 and the Seljuk Turks took it again for Islam in 1084. Then came the Crusaders.
Amid these centuries of fighting, the city went into a decline from which it has never recovered. So did the See of Antioch; neither the city itself nor the patriarchal Church there have ever regained the power and influence they had before the Arab conquest. Antioch’s days as a center of Christian thought were over as well. Although the Antiochene patriarchate continued to exist, the Muslims put the Church of Antioch under the effective jurisdiction of Constantinople. The orthodox Church of Antioch was consequently Byzantinized, theologically and liturgically: the mother Church conformed to the ways of her daughter, and the Antiochian tradition was largely effaced, living on in its purest form among the non-Chalcedonians.
The Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054 did not produce a third Patriarch in Antioch, although the patriarchal Sees of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem generally followed Constantinople’s lead. However, a new claimant did arise during the First Crusade. Initially the Crusaders had agreed to return all captured lands to the rule of the Eastern Roman Emperor Alexios I Comnenos in Constantinople; however, when the Crusader Bohemond conquered Antioch in 1098, he refused to return it to Byzantine jurisdiction, and instead set up his own kingdom. He exiled the Orthodox Patriarch, John the Oxite, and installed a Latin Patriarch of Antioch.
When the Muslims recaptured Antioch in 1268, the Latin Patriarch, Opizio Fieschi, fled to Rome, and the Latin See became titular; after falling vacant in 1953, it was finally abolished altogether in 1964, the heady year that Pope Paul VI met with the Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and they removed the ancient anathemas. So the Latin Patriarch of Antioch is not one of the five Patriarchs who reign today. The Latin Patriarchate was never really a going concern, as the Latin Patriarch was appointed over people who were not Latin-Rite Catholics, and had no intention of behaving as if they were or of accepting his authority.
Much more organic, albeit more mysterious, are the Maronites, and their Patriarch of Antioch. The Maronites take their name from St. Maron, a fourth-century Syrian monk and friend of St. John Chrysostom. Maron left Antioch and settled in the nearby mountains to pursue the ascetic life, at which he was so successful that in the attractiveness of his holiness he amassed a number of followers that became a lasting community – not just of monks, but of married people as well.
The Maronites trace their patriarchate back to St. John Maron (628-707), although why they separated from jurisdiction of the orthodox Patriarch Macedonius is unclear. Some historians contend that they were Monothelites – that is, the only actual flesh-and-blood adherents of an artificial doctrine known as Monothelism, a compromise formula cooked up by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in an attempt to heal the schism with the Monophysites. Monothelism held that Jesus had a human nature complete in all ways except lacking a human will, which (like all too many compromises) satisfied no one: the orthodox would not accept any diminution of Christ’s humanity, and the Monophysites (that is, the Miaphysites, if you asked them) would not agree to anything that appeared to separate Christ’s humanity from His divinity.
In any case, if the Maronites were really the only group that signed on to this concocted heresy, that would explain how they ended up with their own Patriarch not long after the Emperor unveiled his new formula. There are just two problems with this theory: the Maronites themselves deny that they were ever Monothelites, and St. John Maron wrote against Monothelism. The facts of the case are still hotly debated in Beirut cafes. Everyone agrees, however, that during the Crusader period, in 1182, the Maronites reaffirmed their communion with Rome.
Thus at that point there were three Patriarchs of Antioch, or four if you count the Latin one: the Miaphysite (rejecting Chalcedon and not in communion with Rome or Constantinople); the Orthodox (accepting Chalcedon and in communion with Constantinople, but not with Rome); and the Maronite (accepting Chalcedon and in communion with Rome, but not Constantinople). Are you confused yet? Just wait, because….
Yet another Patriarch of Antioch appeared between 1662 and 1702, and then on an ongoing basis since 1783: the Syrian Catholic Patriarch. The Syrian Catholics were members of the Monophysite (yes, I mean Miaphysite) Church of Antioch who were returning to communion with Rome. Since the non-Chalcedonian Church of Antioch had not been subject to the Byzantinizing influence that the orthodox Church had undergone, both the Syriac Orthodox and the Syrian Catholics today are singular in preserving the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church of Antioch, and celebrate one of the oldest liturgies of the Church, the Divine Liturgy of St. James.
Thoroughly Byzantine, by contrast, was the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1724, when its newly enthroned Patriarch, Cyril VI Tanas, declared that he was in communion with Rome. Enraged, a contingent of his priests immediately traveled to Constantinople, where the Patriarch Jeremias III had already gotten wind of Cyril’s intentions and refused to recognize his election. Jeremias chose a new Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Sylvester, who opted to rule his See from afar in Constantinople, as did his successors for many decades thereafter.
The party that followed Cyril, meanwhile, came to be known as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. “Melkite,” or King’s men, was an ancient appellation for adherents of the Council of Chalcedon when the Byzantine Emperor was alone in accepting it and all the Eastern patriarchs rejected it. A venerable title of the Church of Antioch, “Melkite” with the new developments came to be used solely of those who accepted the authority of the Pope of Rome, the monarch of the Church. “Greek,” meanwhile, referred to the rite of the Church, just as does “Roman” in Roman Catholic: the Orthodox Church of Antioch had by this time been Byzantined for nearly a millennium.
This is how it came to be that the Church of Antioch now sports five successors of Peter, although the city in which the disciples were first called Christians is now such a backwater that none of them are actually based there. The Syriac Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchs live in Damascus, the Syrian Catholic Patriarch in Beirut, and the Maronite Patriarch in Bkerke, Lebanon. None of these places are sites of acute persecution of Christians today, but as Islamic supremacists rise to power in the Middle East, the situation for Christians is increasingly precarious, and many are getting out while the getting is good: the Christian population has been steadily declining since 1948 in every Middle Eastern country except Israel.
Those who remain are united by their shared difficulties. Of course, while there are five Patriarchs, the three Catholic ones are not competitors or rival claimants; each, of course, recognizes the historical right and prerogatives of the other. And in the 1990s, the Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics built a church, St. Paul’s, that they share in Doumar, a suburb of Damascus. What’s more, the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III has offered to step down in favor of his Antiochian Orthodox counterpart, Ignatius IV Hazim, if the Catholic and Orthodox Churches reunite.
That is a consummation devoutly to be wished, although of course the twists and turns of history that have led to there being five Patriarchs in the first place cannot be wished away. In God’s Providence each of these five Churches (as they are rightly called, as all have the apostolic succession, the sacraments, and the priesthood) has preserved a legitimate and valuable expression of the Faith, even amid centuries of institutionally justified persecution and harassment from the Muslim authorities.
For that we should be thankful, and moved to pray for the increasingly imperiled Christians of the Church of Antioch and for the successors of Peter who lead it. The survival of Christianity in any form under the circumstances that faced the faithful of Antioch is a testimony to courage and fortitude of the sort we may well need in the very near future.